Technically speaking, New Mexico United will still be in the USL Championship playoff hunt if it fails to win Saturday.
“The message is, it’s a must-win,” United co-captain Josh Suggs said of the team’s approach to Saturday’s showdown with Rio Grande Valley FC at Isotopes Park.
“Both teams are obviously competing for the playoffs,” Suggs added. “With five games left, it’s a must-win.”
A look at the Mountain Division standings certainly justifies Suggs’ sense of urgency. Austin Bold FC occupies fourth place (the final playoff position) with 39 points and six matches remaining. United (38 points) and Rio Grande Valley (37 points) have one fewer match still to play and neither will have a head-to-head shot at Austin down the stretch.
Coming off a frustrating 2-2 home draw with Hartford Athletic on Wednesday, New Mexico can ill afford to let any opportunity to score home points slip away. Nor does United want to slip into sixth place behind RGVFC.
“This is a massive game, we recognize that,” United coach Troy Lesesne said. “We need three points not only to push away RGV but to try to overtake Austin. We need a win and we’re going to go after it.”
Saturday’s match rates as something of an endurance test for United, which will be playing its third match in seven days. The Toros have not played since last Saturday’s home win over Real Monarchs.
United midfielder Saalih Muhammad admits that physical and mental preparation during a busy stretch is challenging, all the more so during a playoff chase. Still, both Muhammad and Suggs said they relish the opportunity.
“We talk a lot about winning the hard moments,” Muhammad said. “This is our chance to do that.”
“We want those hard moments,” he said.
If the teams’ two previous meetings are any indication, Saturday’s match figures to be tight. Rio Grande Valley defeated NMU 1-0 in the season opener in early May, and New Mexico got even with a 2-0 home win Sept. 29 — a contest that remained up for grabs until Chris Wehan scored in the final minute of second-half stoppage time.
Lesesne said limiting the Toros’ opportunities will be critical again Saturday.
“That’s kind of been our standard all year,” he said. “Other than a couple of outliers, we’ve been so solid defensively and we have to have that mindset again or RGV can hurt us.”
As one might expect based on their records, United and RGVFC have been involved in a slew of close matches. NMU has scored 35 goals and conceded 33, while the Toros have netted 39 goals and given up 38.
United has frequently found itself defending either a one-goal lead or playing with the score even in the closing minutes this season, a stressful situation under any circumstances. Still, Suggs would be more than happy to defend a late lead in Saturday’s “must-win” match.
“We’re comfortable defending,” he said, “because we’re good at it.”
GAME DAY INFO
• Saturday, 5 p.m., 101.7 FM/ESPN-plus (online stream/Estrella TV
• United (10-9-6): With dynamic forward Amando Moreno still away competing for El Salvador’s national team, New Mexico’s front line has to find other ways to produce. Local standouts Sergio Rivas and Devon Sandoval did that in Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with Hartford, cashing in headers on well-executed plays. Still, New Mexico was outshot 13-12 despite a significant edge (63%) in possession. United needs to put as much pressure as possible on RGVFC goalkeeper Tyler Deric with playoff hopes at stake. Look for playmakers Rivas, Chris Wehan, Andrew Tinari and Josh Suggs to force the issue.
• Rio Grande Valley (10-10-7): The Toros have struggled to score goals for much of the season but upgraded their attack when they added Jonas Fjeldberg in late August. Acquired on loan from FC Cincinnati, the attacking midfielder has scored two goals on 11 shots in his first three appearances and was the primary catalyst in Saturday’s 3-0 win over Real Monarchs SLC. Fjeldberg had a goal, an assist and forced a corner kick that set up RGVFC’s remaining goal. He was then named to the USL Championship Team of the Week. Fjeldberg’s play has also opened things for 10-goal scorer Elvis Amoh.
• NOTEWORTHY: In addition to rooting for the home side, United fans may want to monitor fourth-place Austin Bold FC’s results over the season’s final stretch. Austin hosts Real Monarchs on Saturday then plays four straight road matches at Birmingham, Real Monarchs, El Paso and San Antonio before finishing at home against Charlotte. … Moreno’s eye-grabbing goal against Real Monarchs on Sept. 18, a bullet from the left top corner of the penalty area, was named one of the USL Championship’s five Goals of the Month for September.